The added value of textile certificates
I used to think that textile certificates were just long lists of requirements. And when you look at them from a distance, that is basically what they are. However, I found out that textile certificates are more than mere check lists.
My research into textile certificates started during my internship at Honest by, a transparent and sustainable fashion brand that strives to only use certificated textiles. Before I started my internship I knew of the existence of textile certificates and I knew some of their names like GOTS, but I had never looked into them any further. At Honest by they already worked with a lot of GOTS and OEKO-TEX certified fabrics, but they asked me to look into several other certificates to see if those could also be interesting to them.
When I asked why they felt so strongly about only working with certified suppliers, I learned a hard truth. As much as we would like to, we can’t always trust that what we buy is what they say it is. There is no trademark on biological or ecological textiles. Any supplier can call their fabric eco or bio and since their factories are often too far away or because our own companies have so many different suppliers, we can’t check this ourselves.
And even if we could… Do we actually know what biological or ecological textiles mean? There are a lot of different definitions and opinions about this. A textile certificate doesn’t only instill trust, it also gives a clear definition of what they regard as an organic, fair, safe or recycled fabric.
So I dove completely into the subject and discovered another value of textile certificates next to the quite literal value of trust and a clear definition.
I had started with a list of 10 mayor certificates that I wanted to research: the Better Cotton Initiative, Bluesign, Cradle to Cradle, the Fairtrade Standard for Fiber Crops, Fairtrade Textile Standard, GOTS, GRS, Made in Green, OEKO-TEX and STeP.
All these certificates have their own criteria and these documents are often very long and are not suitable for some light reading. Which brought me to my first conclusion: “No one is ever going to read ALL of this!”. A lot of consumers aren’t even familiar with these certificates and most brands and designers don’t have all these hours to put into reading all these criteria of all these certificates. Young designers might not even be very aware of these textile certificates, since I certainly didn’t learn anything about them in fashion school.
But how do you make an informed decision if you don’t know what the options exactly mean? There must be an easier way for consumers as well as brands and designers to get informed about the meaning of and differences between textile certificates. It didn’t exist yet, but I was going to create it.
This problem, of an overload of information without a clear overview, brought me to the idea of creating a comparison tool. After reading all the certificates I distilled from them the most important and the most occurring criteria and grouped them into the categories: raw material, chemical use, social responsibility, environmental requirements, quality, health & safety and material reutilization. If a certificate included a criterion it got a checkmark, if it wasn’t included it got an X-mark and if the criterion was described very vaguely I gave it a question mark. With some of the criteria I also added extra notes, so you could make an even better comparison between textile certificates. For example, a lot of certificates include criteria about working hours and over-time, but these criteria vary slightly. Some certificates have stricter criteria than others and by adding short notes you could also see this.
Although I was very happy with this document, and I still think it is a very practical tool, it is still a lot of information and very detailed. It isn’t suitable for everyone. If you are interested in the details of textile certificates, without reading tons of pages or if you are interested in two similar certificates but doubting which one would work for your company, then this is the tool for you. However, if you want a quick overview of which certificates fit the sustainable values of your brand, this is still too complex.
So I went back to the drawing board to find a solution for this. Since we are in fashion, we think in a visual way. Therefore, I decided to translate the values of textile certificates into visuals. I looked again at all the criteria and certificates and I divided those into four values: Environment-friendly, Fair, Circular and Safe. I then scored each certificate on these four values and translated this into a visual.
A high score on environment-friendly means that a certificate has a lot of criteria on reducing or avoiding environmental impact.
A high score on Fair means that a certificate has a lot of criteria on social responsibility and the health and safety of workers.
A high score on Circular means that a certificate has a lot of criteria on recycling and creating recyclable or reusable products.
A high score on Safe means that a certificate has a lot of criteria that make sure that the product is safe to use for consumers.
These visuals are not perfect. A lot of the details and refinement of the textile certificates are lost in this simplification, but it is a good starting point to find out which textile certificates would fit your brand identity. Therefore, I would recommend to not only use the visuals, but use them in combination with the comparison tool. Use the visuals to find out which certificates you are interested in and then read in more detail about them in the comparison tool to make an informed decision.
To start the process of finding a textile certificate that fits your brand identity, ask yourself some questions. What is your or your brands vision on sustainable fashion? What does your brand do to make fashion sustainable? It doesn’t make sense to use fully biodegradable textiles with the Cradle to Cradle certification if your focus as a brand is on making classic garments that will last a lifetime. Ask yourself what your goal is.
These examples were mainly focused on fashion designers or brands who might want to work with certified suppliers. But the same applies when you are a supplier. You could of course get a bluesign certification for your recycled fabrics, but it would be more logical to get the GRS certification. This would also attract more clients who are specifically looking for recycled fabrics.
A random textile certificate is just a checklist of criteria, but a carefully chosen certificate is an addition to your brand story.
While I am very positive about textile certificates, they aren’t perfect. The certification is often an expensive process and small suppliers can’t always afford these costs. A supplier could meet all requirements for a certificate, but doesn’t have it, because of the high costs involved.
Furthermore, new and innovative sustainable textiles are often not yet recognized by textile certificates and sometimes a material just doesn’t apply to the rules of certification. For instance, Tencel is a very sustainably produced material, but it cannot get the GOTS certification, because it is a man-made fiber, which is not considered ‘organic’.
With certified materials you can trust that they are thoroughly checked and meet the criteria, but this doesn’t mean that uncertified materials can’t be sustainable, fair or ‘good’.
So I am not saying you should only use certified materials, but when it is not possible to verify the claims of a supplier by researching or visiting yourself, a certified textile is the better option.
Also, with all the claims being made about sustainability, whether you are a manufacturer or a brand, producing or using certified textiles shows that you are serious about sustainability issues and you are not just greenwashing.
This brings me to the added value of textile certificates that I discovered during my research. A textile certificate is not a definite solution to sustainability problems. But when correctly chosen it strengthens your brand story.
If you chose a textile certificate that fits your brand identity, you will not only show your customers that you are serious about sustainability, fair trade or other issues, you will also complement the story you tell as a brand and increase your credibility.
Communication is key in this issue. Just saying that you are sustainable or slapping a certification on a product doesn’t mean anything for most consumers. But if you tell the story of how you want to make fashion sustainable and share how you tackle these problems, your brand will come alive.